Swimming and Diving: LA has several key athletes returning for 2008-09

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By Mike Cote

For at least the regular season, there won’t be a lot of pressure on the Los Alamos Hilltopper boys and girls swimming and diving teams.

Not that those athletes tend to feel much pressure, anyway.

The Hilltoppers will start their 2008-09 season Saturday at the Peter Barney Relays in Albuquerque. The diving portion of Saturday’s meet starts at 10:30 a.m. and swimming gets underway at 1 p.m.

Los Alamos has a pair of new coaches for the upcoming season. Rusty Bernstein and Cindy Black were picked this summer to take over the reins of the team following Bev Leasure’s departure in April.

Bernstein and Blacks’ philosophy is to stay on an even keel throughout the regular season and let the chips fall where they may when the state meet comes around.

“Everything is a rehearsal for the state met,” Bernstein said. “As long as each kid does the best they can do in whatever event they’re swimming…I will never care about what place anybody takes.”

Bernstein has coached at the club level for several years, while Black has been a longtime assistant with the Hilltoppers.

The two head coaches didn’t actually apply for the position together, but Los Alamos athletic director Vicki Nelms thought the two would be a good fit for the program.

“It’s a lot of work,” Black said of the first part of her first season. “There’s a lot of organizational responsibilities, travel arrangements. It’s a lot more than I expected. Day to day, there’s a lot of organization of details.”

Black said that competitively, the teams are generally looking sharp at this point.

Los Alamos has a lot of important returners on both the boys and girls sides, including 14 athletes that competed at last season’s state meet.

The Hilltopper girls finished as the state runner-up, earning 248.5 points at that meet. La Cueva’s Bears ran away with the state title in 2007-08, collecting 312 points.

Los Alamos’ boys finished with 136, tying them for seventh place with Farmington. Albuquerque Academy crushed all competitors by grabbing 406 points, almost twice as many as second-place Sandia Prep.

The Hilltopper boys, however, lost just one senior off the state meet squad and have five qualifying returners.

Dylan Lake is the only returning senior state qualifier from Los Alamos this season, while Alex Baker and Micah Putnam are returning for their junior season.

The top returner is sophomore Colton Lake, who is expected to contend for a state title in the 100-yard backstroke. Lake finished fourth as a freshman last season and has looked very good in preseason workouts.

Los Alamos has one of the deepest backstroke contingents in the state, with Lake, Putnam and Baker all finishing in the top 15 last season.

Putnam is likewise expected to have a big showing this season after finishing fifth in the 200 individual medley at state in 2007-08.

For the Los Alamos girls, their biggest loss to graduation is Kara Leasure, who won the 200 IM state championship.

However, its next big thing, Sammi Kao, is back for her junior year. Kao had a runner-up finish in the 100 butterfly and fourth-place finish in the 200 freestyle at state last season as well as being on two state relay teams.

Along with Kao, seniors Chelsea McLean and Lauren Castro have state meet experience, as do junior Alexandra Hamada and sophomore Maria Musgrave.

“We’re always a good sprint team,” Black said. “We always do well at the relays and the short events, especially on the girls side.”

Lisa Ann Hendricks, a senior, finished ninth in the state diving competition with 270.8 points. Lauren Bucklin was 13th overall with a 222.55.

Los Alamos’ teams will make three regular season appearances at Academy, where the state meet will be held Feb. 20-21. Academy is the most celebrated swimming program in New Mexico.

La Cueva, Las Cruces and Farmington could also have a lot to interject about who wins the state titles this season.

Beyond getting as many kids qualified for state, preferably as early as possible this season, the immediate goals around the Hilltopper squad are going to be simple ones.

“We’ll be looking at race strategy,” Bernstein said. “We’re looking at the pacing of races. It’ll be more of a critique technically than anything.”